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©FAO/Alberto Conti

Environmental and social standards:
certification systems that add value

The adoption of more sustainable practices in agricultural production and trade is a primary concern for FAO. Voluntary standards and certification systems may benefit farmers and farm workers, as they can potentially lead to increased return on their labour, better working conditions and longer term environmental improvement. They may offer small farmers an opportunity to stay in business, through the support of consumers who are willing to pay a price premium. These initiatives may also benefit the local communities surrounding the farms and the environment. When they lead to local development through higher incomes, job creation and capacity building, they benefit society as a whole.

Concerns have been raised, in particular in developing countries, that some private certification systems may create barriers to market access and raise the costs of production and marketing. When the costs of compliance and certification are high and not properly compensated by the market, small-scale farmers and businesses may be unable to obtain certification and run the risk of being excluded from some export markets. Small-scale producers need reliable information, technical assistance and institutional support in order to take advantage of the opportunities offered by voluntary standards while minimizing risks.

The Trade and Markets Division of FAO has been dealing with environmental and social certification in agriculture since 1999. It has carried out economic analyses of trade in certified products and market studies. It organized conferences and workshops for information sharing and capacity building. In addition, it has produced a series of manuals on certification for agricultural exports covering various regions of the world.